Leading from the front at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open

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A pioneering force in travel retail for the past 38 years, Dubai Duty Free is leading from the front in other ways this week.

Last Saturday the company hosted the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby, which was the first major sporting event in the country to attract 1,000 spectators since lockdown rules eased recently. This week, it is title sponsor to another pilot event that welcomes back fans to sport: the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, with 5,000 guests a day allowed into the main tournament from today (1 July) at Mount Juliet in County Kilkenny.

‘Unmissable’: The limited allocation of tickets for the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open was sold out within hours, with a huge appetite among the Irish public to return to live events

Wednesday saw the appetiser to that event take place, with the staging of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Pro-Am. Taking part were top Irish professionals such as Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry, Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell, and well-known names including rugby star Johnny Sexton, hurling legends DJ Carey, Henry Shefflin and Davy Fitzgerald, former Tanaiste Dick Spring as well as Coronas lead singer Danny O’Reilly.

The entranceway to the tournament features past images of winners including Padraig Harrington and Shane Lowry. Sadly The Moodie Davitt Report and team did not trouble the Pro-Am trophy engravers this time around.

The Moodie Davitt Report was there too. I was an honoured playing guest on one of Dubai Duty Free’s six teams entered into the competition, hoping for a repeat of 2018, when our team won the Pro-Am in Ballyliffin in the company of Jon Rahm – who as golf fans will know is the newly crowned US Open champion and now world number one.

On the tee: Niall Kearney (left) leads the team of Damien Fox, Conor Bartley and Dermot Davitt into action at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, Mount Juliet estate, County Kilkenny (Photo: Fran Caffrey / Golffile.ie)

With a spring in my step, I arrived to the beautifully turned out venue yesterday morning, ready to bring my A-game and to challenge one of Ireland’s premier courses.

Irish pro Niall Kearney in stellar form during the Pro-Am. A Raheny man, Niall is a fellow northside Dubliner, giving us another sound reason to cheer him through the weekend ahead.

With the encouragement and skills of up and coming Irish pro Niall Kearney in nearby attendance, and the grand company of Damien Fox (one of my playing partners in our 2018 victory) and Conor Bartley in glorious sunshine, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, if you discount tee shots, long irons, short irons, chips and putts, not that much really. And it all began so well. I slid in a snaky 20-foot putt for birdie on the first, drawing acclaim from Niall and an acerbic “What’s seldom is wonderful” from his coach – who spent much of his day tramping through the rough looking for our missing golf balls.

Guess where the ball ended up? Dermot Davitt and (below) Damien Fox take the tourist route to the 13th green.

The wheels came off soon after, with the divots piling up and cries of ‘fore’ breaking the rural peace (thankfully most spectators decided to attend from Thursday onwards, sparing themselves the dangers of our waywardness).

Inspired however by a sumptuous performance from Niall, who followed up a 12th place finish last week in Germany with an exquisite show of iron play – let’s hope he hasn’t peaked before the big event starts – we pulled ourselves together to shoot a fairly respectable collective -19.

That was well off the -32 pace set by Tommy Fleetwood’s team of winners. Then again, I am fairly sure they didn’t have the same sensual, ‘back to nature’ experience that we did, exploring the trees, flower beds and streams of the Mount Juliet estate in the hunt for wayward golf balls.

‘I think we made it lads.’ The 18th green and Dubai Duty Free Pavilion beckon after an error-strewn but hugely enjoyable round. Below, with Conor Bartley and Damien Fox at the Dubai Duty Free-hosted on-course barbeque

Another great co-branding project as Dubai Duty Free freshens up the hospitality from Heineken, surely a nod to Executive Vice Chairman & CEO Colm McLoughlin and his choice of tipple

As this event takes place, even with limited numbers and with all of the necessary safety measures – it also offers an important sense of normality returning to Irish life.

As the country with the strictest, longest shutdown of society in Europe (one that partially continues with the government decision this week to postpone the opening of indoor dining), the fact that we could experience a real occasion, enjoy stunning surroundings in great company, supported by a warm Irish welcome, shows what we have missed and what lies ahead once this crisis passes.

Dubai Duty Free is playing its role in helping us edge towards normal once again, something we hope the many thousands who walk Mount Juliet in coming days will recognise.

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